During this long hiatus, engendered by huge work events, I have listened to any amount of music and comforted myself by re-reading favourite Terry Pratchetts on the weekends. But the mere thought of writing about them was too draining, till today. The impetus: a wonderful novel by the enchanting albeit obscure title of I Capture the Castle, the first novel of one Dodie (short for Dorothy) Smith, more famously known for children’s novel The Hundred and One Dalmations. But I had picked up I Capture the Castle not because of the Dalmations connection (of which I was unaware).

In June of 2003, while on my (Singapore Airlines) flight back home after my first year in Oxford, I casually picked an in-flight movie – you guessed it – I Capture the Castle. That was one of the most delightful, quietly funny, subtle, intelligent, and evocative films I’d seen in ages, with all the gorgeousness of writing and cinematography associated with the English period (specifically 1930s) film. More importantly, it had real depth and warmth, and somehow managed to leave me with an intense feeling of nostalgia – for what, I’m still not quite sure. I subsequently acquired both the DVD and the original novel that the film was based on.

The cast of I Capture the Castle was astounding, but I’d never seen or heard of any of them before. Most striking were the luminous and phenomenal lead actress Romola Garai, who plays the intelligent young girl and sharply observant narrator/writer Cassandra Mortmain; character actor Bill Nighy as Cassandra’s (ex-?)genius of a writer-father whose persistent inability to turn out any successor to his well-received first novel has landed the family in deep but genteel poverty; and Australian actress Rose Byrne as Cassandra’s elder sister, Rose, who as the beauty of the family is determined to marry well and pull them all out of their poverty. The Mortmain family is rounded off by geekily clever younger brother Thomas; Stephen the family ‘hired boy’; and kind-hearted, kooky, self-consciously arty nude model and stepmother Topaz.

Now, this might sound like a bit of an English eccentricity-overload, especially when the film opens with Topaz running out of the family’s crumbling castle-home – they have it on 40-year lease from the owner – to ‘commune with nature’ on a rainy night. Naked, naturally. This eccentricity shows up quite strongly, especially in contrast with the American characters – brothers Simon and Neil Cotton, the owners to the castle who come to England to see it after inheriting it, and cause quite a stirring up in the Mortmains’ lives. But all the characters are genuine in spite of their quirks, their motivations and passions are real and relatable, and their story is absorbing and told not just with pathos but also well-leavened with that rarity, a great sense of humour. The film does a fine job of translating seemingly untranslatable tones and moods onto the screen; all credit to director Tim Fywell. But no film can ever be quite as good as one’s own imagination while reading the novel.

This scene wasn’t in the film, so my imagination of it is original. Miss Marcy, the village librarian, has come by the castle to drop off some detective books for Mr. Mortmain and be a little bit of a well-meaning kaypoh, helping to conduct an ‘Enquiry into the Finances of the Mortmain Family’. Mr. Mortmain has just come into the room in the middle of the enquiry. As recorded in Cassandra’s journal (slightly edited for length):

‘Well, don’t let me interrupt the game,’ said Father. ‘What is it?’ And before I could think of any way of distracting him, he had leaned over Miss Marcy’s shoulder to look at the list in front of her. As it then stood, it read:

Earning Capacity for Present Year
Mrs Mortmain – nil.
Cassandra Mortmain – nil.
Thomas Mortmain – nil.
Rose Mortmain – nil.
Mr Mortmain – nil.
Stephen Colly – 25s. a week.

Father’s expression didn’t change as he read, he went on smiling; but I could feel something happening to him. When he had finished, he said quite lightly: ‘And is Stephen giving us his wages?’

‘I ought to pay for my board and lodging, Mr Mortmain, sir,’ said Stephen, ‘and for – for past favours; all the books you’ve lent me –’

‘I’m sure you’ll make a very good head of the family,’ said Father. Then he thanked Miss Marcy again for bringing him such a good book, and said good night to her very courteously.

Miss Marcy made no remark about the incident, which shows what a tactful person she is; but she looked embarrassed and said she must be getting along. I went out to see her off. As we crossed the courtyard, she glanced up at the gatehouse window and asked if I thought Father would be offended if she brought him a little tin of biscuits to keep there. I said I didn’t think any food could give offence in our house and she said: ‘Oh, dear!’

The rest of this blog entry will consist of particularly memorable and/or characteristic bits from the novel that reflect just what I love so much about it. I suppose this is the modern-day equivalent of Cassandra copying letters into her journal. None of them actually made it into the film that I recall, but perhaps that is to be expected given the constraints of plot, running time and filming costs.

Rose is asleep – on her back, with her mouth wide open. Even like that she looks nice. I hope she is having a beautiful dream about a rich young man proposing to her. […]

I could easily go on writing all night but I can’t really see and it’s extravagant on paper, so I shall merely think. Contemplation seems to be about the only luxury that costs nothing.

———-

Father came from the bathroom and went through to his bedroom. The next second I heard him shout:

‘Good God, what have you done to yourself?’

He sounded so horrified that I thought Topaz had some accident. I dashed into Buffer State but stopped myself outside their bedroom door; I could see her from there. She was wearing a black evening dress that she has never liked herself in, a very conventional dress. Her hair was done up in a bun and she had makeup on – not much, just a little rouge and lipstick. The result was astounding. She looked quite ordinary – just vaguely pretty but not worth a second glance.

Neither of them saw me. I heard her say:

‘Oh, Mortmain, this is Rose’s night. I want all the attention to be focused on her –’

I tiptoed back to the bedroom. I was bewildered at such unselfishness, particularly as she had spent hours mending her best evening dress. I knew what she meant, of course – at her most striking she can make Rose’s beauty look like mere prettiness. Suddenly I remembered that first night the Cottons came here, how she tried to efface herself. Oh, noble Topaz!

I heard Father shout:

‘To hell with that. God knows I’ve very little left to be proud of. At least let me be proud of my wife.’

There was a throaty gasp from Topaz: ‘Oh, my darling!’ – and then I hastily went downstairs and kept Rose talking in the drawing room. I felt this was something we oughtn’t to be in on. And I felt embarrassed – I always do when I really think of Father and Topaz being married.

When they came down Topaz was as white as usual and her silvery hair, which was at its very cleanest, was hanging down her back. She had her best dress on which is Grecian in shape, like a clinging grey cloud, with a great grey scarf which she had draped round her head and shoulders. She looked most beautiful – and just how I imagine the Angel of Death. […]

Of course I have always realized that she is kind, but I should never have thought her capable of making that noble sacrifice for Rose. And just as I was feeling ashamed of ever having thought her bogus, she said in a voice like plum-cake:

‘Look, Mortmain, look! Oh, don’t you long to be an old, old man in a lamp-lit inn?’

‘Yes, particularly one with rheumatism,’ said Father. ‘My dear, you’re an ass.’

———-

When Neil was getting me my second glass of cherry brandy I took a good look at Rose. She was wearing her very oldest dress, a washed-out blue cotton, but it looked exactly right for sitting outside an inn. One branch of the chestnut came down behind her head and, while I was watching, a strand of her bright hair got caught across a leaf.

‘Is that branch worrying you?’ Simon asked her. ‘Would you like to change places? I hope you wouldn’t because your hair looks so nice against the leaves.’

I was glad he had been noticing.

Rose said the branch wasn’t worrying her in the least.

When Neil came back with my second cherry brandy, she said: ‘Well, now that we’ve finished lunch, I’ll have one, too.’ I knew very well she had been envying mine. Then she called after him: ‘No, I won’t – I’ll have crème de menthe.’ I was surprised, because we both tasted that at Aunt Millicent’s once and hated it heartily; but I saw what she was after when she got it – she kept holding it up so that the green looked beautifully against her hair, though of course it clashed quite dreadfully with the chestnut leaves. I must say she was being more affected than I ever saw her, but Simon appeared to be enchanted. Neil didn’t – he winked at me once and said: ‘Your sister will be wearing that drink as a hat any minute.’

A bit that quite sums up the famous British reserve (which I think I have, too, despite being Singaporean):

Neil had driven coming out, so Simon drove going home, with Rose at the front beside him. It was fun at the back with Neil. He told me lots of interesting things about life in America – they do seem to have a good time there, especially the girls.

‘Do Rose and I seem very formal and conventional, compared with American girls?’ I asked.

‘Well, hardly conventional,’ he said, laughing, ‘even madam with her airs isn’t that’ – he jerked his head towards Rose. ‘No, I’d never call any of your family conventional, but – oh, I guess there’s formality in the air here, even the villagers are formal; even you are, in spite of being so cute.’

I asked him just what he meant by ‘formality’. He found difficulty in putting it into words, but I gather it includes reserve and ‘a sort of tightness’.

‘Not that it matters, of course,’ he added, hastily. ‘English people are swell.’

That was so like Neil – he will joke about England, but he is always most anxious not really to hurt English feelings.

A particularly funny (and true) description of some of J S Bach, although I adore Bach:

‘Well, Debussy’s certainly made a hit with you,’ said Simon, ‘though I’m not sure you wouldn’t outgrow him. You’re the kind of child who might develop a passion for Bach.’

I told him I hadn’t at school. The one Bach piece I learnt made me feel I was being repeatedly hit on the head with a teaspoon.

An interesting conversation between Cassandra and the village Vicar which presents one aspect of ‘finding religion’ in a new light to me:

We got started on religion, which surprised me rather, as the Vicar so seldom mentions it – I mean, to our family; naturally it must come up in his daily life.

‘You ought to try it, one of these days,’ he said. ‘I believe you’d like it.’

I said: ‘But I have tried it, haven’t I? I’ve been to church. It never seems to take.’

He laughed and said he knew I’d exposed myself to infection occasionally.

‘But catching things depends so much on one’s state of health. You should look in on the church if ever you’re mentally run down.’

I remembered my thoughts on the way to the village. ‘Oh, it wouldn’t be fair to rush to church because one was miserable,’ I said – taking care to look particularly cheerful.

‘It’d be most unfair not to – you’d be doing religion out of its very best chance.’

‘You mean “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity”?’

‘Exactly. Of course, there are extremities at either end; extreme happiness invites religion almost as much as extreme misery.’

I told him I’d never thought of that.

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